Film Review: “The Dictator”

by Jason LeRoy on May 16, 2012

Anna Faris and Sacha Baron Cohen in THE DICTATOR

starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley

written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer

directed by: Larry Charles

MPAA: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images

How does one successfully parody internationally infamous figures that are already parodies of themselves? This is a question that Sacha Baron Cohen tackles with mixed results in The Dictator, his first fully-scripted starring vehicle. Yes, if you were understandably confused by the trailers and the (mostly unfunny) in-character promotional appearances, let’s clear that up: The Dictator is not another hit-and-run interview mockumentary in the style of Borat or Bruno. It is by far the most conventional comedy Cohen has made, although it still boasts some impressively pointed political satire about America’s role in the global discussion on dictatorships.

Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, the obliviously entitled and glibly sadistic dictator of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya. When Aladeen and his entourage fly to New York City to address the United Nations, he falls victim to a plot by his most trusted advisor (Ben Kingsley) to have him killed and replaced with his halfwit body double (also Cohen). Aladeen manages to escape his would-be assassin, but not before his iconic beard has been completely shaved off, rendering him unrecognizable.

When he shows up at an anti-Aladeen protest in an attempt to get back into his luxury hotel, he meets Zoey (Anna Faris, back in excellent comic form after the disappointing What’s Your Number), a good-natured amalgam of every liberal/feminist/crunchy stereotype one could conjure. Mistaking him for an oppressed immigrant, Zoey offers Aladeen a job at her food co-op, and the two strike up an unlikely romance as Aladeen secretly works to restore himself to his former tyrranical glory.

A fitfully funny combination of Coming to America and The Devil’s Double, The Dictator is a difficult comedy to judge by its own merits. Having set the bar so high for himself with Borat and, to a lesser extent, Bruno, it can’t help but seem a bit disappointing to see Cohen in a traditional scripted role. And yet, I think we can all agree that the schtick was getting tired; the shark was arguably jumped in that woefully unfunny moment when he dumped “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest at this year’s Oscar red carpet.

It is heartening to see that Cohen and director Larry Charles seem to understand they’ve worn out their stunt-queen welcome. Sadly, the character of Admiral General Aladeen is just not that inspired of a comic creation. In a post-Hussein/Jong-Il/Gaddafi world, you have to work a bit harder to find good comedy in that overly familiar dictator archetype; and while Cohen and his writers have crafted a plot that reads as amusing on paper, the execution is a bit limp (and this is by far Cohen’s least quotable character, which will spell doom for college audiences).

It lamely retreads post-9/11 anti-Muslim paranoia in a way that feels dated, as well as the so-called “humor” of Aladeen freely spouting racial and cultural slurs, which is just easy and cheap. The filmmakers even seem to sense the weakness of their story, frequently distracting from it with moments of outlandishly extreme gross-out humor (one particularly gonzo sequence features the great Kathryn Hahn in yet another scene-stealing performance). The Dictator works fine as just another hard-R comedy (albeit with a political edge), but it is neither as fresh nor as innovative as we’ve come to expect from Cohen.

The Dictator opens nationwide today.

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